Bucolic Anderson Island sits just a few tantalizing miles off the Pierce County shoreline. Decompression from city stress begins the instant the ferry Christine Anderson chugs away from the Steilacoom dock. In 20 minutes, you’re in a different world.
Residents on Puget Sound’s southernmost island describe their pace of life as something like dog-years in reverse. Time moves in slow motion, maybe even backing up a bit, when compared to the rat-racing mainland. A stop by the swimming hole at Lowell Johnson Park on a hot summer day illustrates the effect perfectly, as swimmers float suspended in the clear, cool water of Lake Florence.
But a dozen times a day – and twice more on weekends – island life can move at a faster clip. Those are the times when the ferry, the island’s maritime umbilical cord, sets off for the mainland.
“You live under the ferry (schedule) dictator,” says Charles Bronson, a pile driver who’s searching for work. But setting his watch to sailing times is worth the trade-off, he says, for what he gains in tranquility.
“It’s safe, quiet, pleasant,” Bronson says of his island home.
Jobs, shopping, doctor’s office visits, first-run movies – these are the missions that can temporarily lure folks off their treasured island. Some move away for years. But the smitten always return.
“Once you get saltwater in your veins, it’s hard to get it out,” says Mark Drummond, who began summering on the island in 1963 when his parents bought property there. He now lives there full time.
Anderson serves as the year-round home to nearly 1,000 people (give or take a few hundred; the last population estimate dates from the 2000 Census). It is also a summer escape for many more. The joke is that during the annual July salmon bake, the added weight of thousands of visitors to the 8-square-mile island threatens to sink it into the Sound.
Like many longtime island residents, 54-year-old Drummond remembers simpler times, before Spartan summer cabins, farms and forests gave way to contemporary view properties.
Drummond’s father was a minister, so his parents stayed on the mainland on weekends. They’d often put him on the ferry with his dog, and send him over to Anderson alone for the weekend. Since there was no telephone, he would check in with his parents by ham radio.
“On Friday night, there would be six cars in (the ferry) line,” he recalls. “You knew everybody in line. You had to say ‘Hi.’”
Today, the Christine Anderson can carry as many as 54 vehicles.
When he grew up, Drummond often commuted by boat to his job on the mainland. But the arrangement was less idyllic than it sounds.
“You have to have a boat, and a car in town,” he says. You need a place to moor the boat while you’re at work, and a place to park your mainland car when you’re on the island.
“You have to make sure all your vehicles start,” he says. “If one fails, you’re doomed.”
Living on an island is all about staying flexible, islanders say. Earlier this year, Anderson Island was without electricity for days after an underwater cable broke, and residents had to rely on generators for some time afterwards.
The moat that surrounds them keeps a lot of big-city problems at bay. But the island’s relatively small population means there are few big-city conveniences. No movie theaters, shopping malls or banks, although there is an ATM at the Island General Store.
The last boat leaves the island at 8 p.m. on weekdays, 10:30 p.m. on weekends. Islanders have been known to chuckle when stranded visitors ask “Where’s the bridge?”
Those who can – especially retirees – try to limit their trips to the mainland to save on ferry fares and time.
“I don’t go to town on the weekend when I don’t have to,” says Drummond. “If you come to the island, you’ve got to understand the way it is and be prepared. If you fight the island, it will eat you up.”
“Either you’re going to love it, or you’re going to crawl right out of your skin,” advises Julie Allison, who first arrived in 1989 after she answered an ad for work on a horse farm. She now works as a clerk in the general store, which serves as the island’s grocery, gas station, post office, and hardware supplier.
Jeff Gillette ran the store for 30 years, and some islanders were surprised when he sold the operation earlier this year to Barbara Lake, who had worked in the store’s deli for years.
Gillette was only 22 when he bought the store “on a whim.” He took over on April Fool’s Day 1979.
“We had a blast,” he says of his many years as the island’s main shopkeeper. “My kids grew up in playpens in the store. We weren’t in it to get rich. We were having fun.”
Gillette says he tried to meet islanders’ needs for everything from groceries to furniture, sporting goods to animal feed. He even sold baby ducks.
Newcomers soon learn that the store is the heartbeat of the island, where both commercial goods and island gossip change hands.
“You can find just about everything you need there,” says Crystal Widmann, a Spanaway teacher whose family has owned a vacation house on the island for nearly a year.
Like many in the South Sound, Widmann had never heard of Anderson Island until she went hunting for a summer home.
“You feel like you’re getting far away, and yet you’re not,” she says. “Door-to-door, including the ferry ride, it’s just over an hour from home.”
Island elders are quick to point out that telephones, electricity and indoor plumbing arrived only within the past 40 or 50 years. Even today, islanders take a measure of pride when they list the amenities Anderson lacks.
But residents are equally proud of Anderson’s assets – a lakeside restaurant, golf course, tennis courts and parks – and the way volunteers pitch in to keep community life vibrant. There’s no shortage of community committees to serve on for those so inclined – anything from putting on a ladies’ tea party to rescuing feral cats.
The Anderson Island Historical Society operates the Johnson Farm museum on the grounds of the last major working farm on the island. The farmstead now includes a large community garden, where residents can grow vegetables, herbs and flowers, along with a few chickens. There’s also a gift shop that sells island-made crafts.
A 1904 school house serves as a community center. While it undergoes renovation, the center’s fitness equipment has temporarily relocated to someone’s garage, so that islanders can still work out.
There are no full-time police officers on the island, but a 16-member volunteer citizens’ patrol acts as eyes and ears for law enforcement. They patrol the island, perform house checks for absentee homeowners and direct traffic at ferry lines on big summer weekends.
The fire department employs three people, but also relies on volunteers.
Is there friction between newcomers and old-timers, summer people and year-rounders?
Only if you make it, says Kathy Peterson, who lived on the island, moved away for several years, and then returned about a year ago.
“They either blend in, or they leave,” Peterson says of the new residents.
Some islanders are reluctant to talk about their home, preferring that it remain one of Puget Sound’s best kept secrets.
“People move here for their own little Utopia,” says Drummond. “You can’t blame them for that.”
Adds Allison: “If we sound protective, it’s because this is our island, our home.”
But many longtime islanders say you can’t stop growth. They just want to be sure that it’s sustainable and gradual.
“I don’t feel you can stay stagnant,” says Gillette.
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635